A couple begins fighting over their new pet, a hedgehog who might be suffering from chronic depression and is seeing a pet psychiatrist. A mother is greeted at her front door by the parent of her daughter’s imaginary friend. A father who’s constructed an elaborate museum to cash in on a mislabeled house ends up running into the reality beneath it all. A turtle gets taken hostage and on the run from a former relationship.
Those are the sorts of stories you’ll find in Einstein’s Beach House, an engaging, clever set of short stories by author Jacob M. Appel. If you were to just sit and discuss the themes of the stories, you might come to conclusion that Appel is writing stories of upper-middle class ennui, and that wouldn’t necessarily be an unfair description. And yet, it would also make the stories sound more pretentious and insufferable than they really are. Instead, Appel revels in his drily silly ideas, drawing out the sly comedy in his ideas while never shirking from his characters and their personalities.
That’s not to say that every story is comedy, even dry ones. “Limerence” is the story of a childhood crush that unfolds over the years, and Appel brings out the quiet sadness of it all, both in the narrator and the subject of his fascination; “The Rod of Asclepius” tells the story of a grieving father’s relationship with his daughter, one that gradually reveals itself as something darker than it first appears. And even the more comedic ones – “La Tristesse des Herissons,” which is the story of the aforementioned depressed hedgehog – have a melancholy core (in this case, revolving around a gradually deteriorating relationship).
And yet, Appel never lets the stories become mopey or navel-gazing. There’s a quiet emotional richness to them that really works; more than that, there’s Appel’s strong literary voice, which makes the stories more complex and rich than they could easily have been. Even in his stories of failed marriages or strained parental bonds, there’s something nicely human in each of them, and enough of a literary conceit that they never become insufferable stories of rich white privilege, which I sort of dreaded they might be. (I suspect that Appel reads a lot of George Saunders, though I can’t prove that; there’s a lot of Saunders’ wit and grace with simple stories in here, which is high praise indeed.)
Einstein’s Beach House is a fast, fast read, even by short story standards – 8 stories, and less than 200 pages long – but that in no way detracts from how much enjoyment you’ll get out of them. Yes, many of them feature ambiguous endings that can sometimes feel a little incomplete, but that’s life, to no small degree; more than that, they usually feel like the right kind of incomplete for these tales. A great collection that’s well worth reading.